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Biden and the dilemma of a centrist President in a hyper-polarized political system

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“The state of the Union is strong because you, the American people, are strong,” said Joe Biden at the end of his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress. “This is our moment to meet and overcome the challenges of our time. And we will, as one people. One America. The United States of America,” he concluded. The chamber, dotted with displays of Ukrainian support – flags, sunflowers, even blue and yellow suits – applauded as the president saluted with a folksy “go get ‘em!”

Yet for a president who was elected on the promise to be a president for all Americans, and chosen by his party for his moderate, bipartisan appeal, Biden seems to be uniting his country mostly under one count: (almost) nobody is happy with him.

2022 America is deeply polarized

 

His approval ratings are near record lows (below 40%), and a majority of voters think he hasn’t kept most of his promises. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to bring up the president’s popularity – few things are as surefire a way to get support among Americans than the so-called “rally-’round-the-flag” effect – but the bulk of his problems are internal matters, not international relations.

Just over a year into his presidency, and with the midterm elections threatening to challenge the Democratic narrow majority in Congress, Biden’s woes – Covid, inflation, a once-ambitious reform agenda hostage to a couple of opposing Democratic senators – overshadow his successes.

In his March 1st address, Biden listed his accomplishments, some of which arguably magnified by the physiological recovery of the country after the initial pandemic setbacks. More than 6.5 million jobs were created in the past year, the economy grew at a 40-year record of 6.9%, the 2022 deficit is projected to be $1.66 trillion – less than half of 2020, if still a far cry from pre-pandemic levels.

But voters – both Democrats and Republicans – seem more focused on the disappointments and hardships. Economic sentiment hits historical lows, and first to blame is perhaps the increasingly high cost of living, which the president addressed right after the Russian-Ukraine war in a speech that put a lot of focus on the economy.

 

Read also: Polarization and progress in US politics

 

As GDP continues to grow at 5.7% according to the official estimates, so does inflation, which has reached the 40-year-high of 7.5%, and is expected to grow further, courtesy of the war in Europe. Biden wants to address this by pushing companies to produce more in the US, but he didn’t offer much details as to how he plans to do so.

Covid, too, continues to be a problem, with an average 1,900 deaths per day in the US as of the last week of February, and a substantial stall in convincing the remaining eligible adults to get vaccinated. Biden’s attempt to find a compromise between those wanting to be done with the pandemic response and those asking for continued safety measures ended up with a failure to deliver a consistent strategy. This is indicative of an approach that has not resulted in success so far – with Covid, or otherwise. The administration’s near-exclusive focus on vaccines to control the epidemic left a void in other containment measures, enabling omicron to wreak havoc. Requests for free at-home tests were first mocked but then fulfilled, if too late, and a premature relaxing of quarantine rules and mask requirements led to increased cases while still not satisfying those asking for a faster return to normal.

Even the latest announcement that most containment measures will be dropped does not make everyone happy: It is arguably not enough for those who want to move resources away from the pandemic, and too much for those feeling that abandoning the restrictions put vulnerable populations at risk.

Even within the Democratic party, Biden seems to struggle in finding a way. Widely supported measures such as guaranteed parental leave (currently, the law requires none), or providing childcare support have been diminished in their ambition, to the disappointment of the more progressive groups, yet are still meeting roadblocks in conservative Democratic senator Joe Manchin or pro-big business Kyrsten Sinema.

Even with all these challenges, many signs point to a country that is doing far better than it was expected. So why isn’t this the message voters are registering? Ultimately, it might be down to the fact that Biden’s presidency is the product of a paradox: He was elected to be bipartisan in a country where bipartisanship is a thing of the past.

Taking office after Donald Trump, who ended his presidency with two impeachments and an insurgency, Biden is in many ways the polar opposite of his predecessor: a politician and Washington insider, a long-serving senator and two-terms vice-president, a man known and respected by members of both parties, an empathetic family man of humble origin who overcame enormous personal tragedies.

He took office determined to chase the holy grail of bipartisanship, but found himself a man of moderation and compromise in a country – and a Congress and even Supreme Court – that is more polarized than ever, where bipartisanship has no place.

Like his “Build Back Better” plan, it seems the presidency of moderation and compromise is hostage to those who do not see value in either, which likely includes a lot of voters, too.

“Let’s stop seeing each other as enemies, and start seeing each other for who we are: fellow Americans,” said Biden during his address. “We can’t change how divided we’ve been. It was a long time in coming. But we can change how to move forward –  on Covid-19 and other issues that we must face together.”

 

Read also: Demographic and cultural fault lines put Democratic Party’s electoral future at risk

 

But for all his optimistic thinking, the reality feels quite different, and his exhortation to be united likely fell right into the rift of a country divided well beyond any well-meaning short-term resolutions. It might be time for him – and mainstream Democrats like him – to put the dream of cooperation aside and start pursuing a sharp, one-sided agenda, like Republicans never had trouble doing.

His choice of Ketanji Brown Jackson for Supreme Court justice nominee, instead of Michelle Childs, who had more bipartisan appeal and was initially rumored to be the president’s choice, might be the first sign that he intends to move away from the middle of the road, and will be the test of whether he is able to be successful at it.